Even as the rest of the disability community experienced job gains in 2017, African Americans with disabilities are being left behind in the workforce
New statistics released in February show that African Americans with disabilities are being left behind even as more and more people with disabilities enter the workforce. The Disability Statistics Compendium, released by Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, shows that the employment rate for African Americans with disabilities stands at 28.6 percent. The Compendium also shows that geography has an impact on employment outcomes for African Americans with disabilities.
The newly published 2018 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium compiles data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The Compendium is intended to equip policymakers, self-advocates and other groups with clear statistics on the state of disability in America today.
Out of more than three million working-age African Americans with disabilities, barely 934,589 have jobs. This data also shows the serious gaps that remain between disabled and non-disabled African Americans. According to the Compendium, 28.6 percent of U.S. African American civilians with disabilities ages 18-64 living in the community had a job, compared to 73.7 percent of blacks without disabilities.
“About two-and-a-half decades ago, Eddie Glenn called attention to the disparate treatment of African American women with disabilities, suggesting that a triple jeopardy syndrome put them at a further disadvantage because they were victims of race, gender and disability bias in our society,” said Donna Walton, Ed.D. “People of color and people with disabilities still face barriers to education and employment that limit their earning potential today.”
Comparing new data to last year’s results shows that more than 7,500 African Americans with disabilities left the workforce in 2017. These losses occurred even as other segments of the disability community continued to see job gains.
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“The most recent employment data demonstrates the need for a national dialogue, reinforced by a commitment to leverage the power of partnerships to identify highly responsive, innovative strategies for transforming the underemployment paradigm for people with disabilities including African Americans with disabilities,” said Janet LaBreck, an African American woman who is blind. She also is the founder of Synergy Consulting Partners, a noted workforce development expert and RespectAbility board member.
“The impact of the triple jeopardy syndrome cannot be overstated, as an African American with a disability can never be quite sure if their race, gender or disability is hurting their chances for advancement,” added Dr. Walton. “My experiences — being denied employment and facing financial planners who make false assumptions about my income status and earning potential because of my disability, for instance — prompt my suspicions that triple jeopardy is working against many African Americans with disabilities.”
“As a black woman with a disability, ableism, sexism and racism are nothing new to my daily experiences,” said Tatiana Lee, a communications fellow with RespectAbility. Lee is a black woman who uses a wheelchair as a result of spina bifida. “It shouldn’t be a choice which identity people choose to see and value at a given moment, especially when those who live with these multiple identities cannot separate them and shouldn’t have to. I want to be celebrated for all my identities and everything that comes with them.”
Opportunities to enter the workforce very much depend on where a person lives. In Texas, which is home to one of the largest African American communities of any state, more than 8,800 African Americans with a variety of disabilities got new jobs. Likewise, 5,191 African Americans with disabilities living in New York state entered the workforce in 2017. However, in far too many states, African Americans are leaving the workforce, experiencing discrimination and being denied the opportunity to earn an income.
Out of the 50 states, African Americans with disabilities only saw job gains in 22 states, while they lost jobs in 28 states. The worst job losses experienced by African Americans with disabilities came in Missouri. According to the Disability Statistics Compendium, the disability employment rate for African Americans with disabilities living in the Show Me State dropped to 23 percent after 7,686 left the workforce.
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Likewise, Pennsylvania saw a major drop in both the number of African Americans with disabilities and in the state’s disability employment rate for African Americans with disabilities. In total, 6,974 African Americans with disabilities lost their jobs and the disability employment rate has dropped to 24.9 percent.
While last year’s data shows negative outcomes, there is hope for future improvements in jobs for African Americans with disabilities. “As partners, we have a responsibility to embrace evidence-based models that include and expand understanding of best practices for delivering high-quality, fully integrated services and supports to all job seekers,” LaBreck said before going on to point out that the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), signed into law on July 22, 2014, has driven “federal agencies, employers and the disability community to work jointly as partners to reform federal employment, education and training programs to reflect a more integrated, job-driven, public workforce system.”
In the private sector, when employers recognize the importance of including disability in their diversity initiatives, success follows. According to Vincenzo Piscopo of the Coca-Cola Company, “People with disabilities bring a unique skill set that it is very valuable for companies. As it relates to employment and competitiveness in the workplace, we have to stop thinking of disability as a weakness and start thinking of it as an asset.”
Brand name companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Pepsi, UPS, Ernst & Young, IBM, Walgreen’s, Starbucks, Walgreens and the software corporation SAP show people with disabilities are successful employees. They also show that these workers improve businesses’ bottom lines.
As more and more companies hire employees with disabilities, conversations are shifting from just dealing with architectural barriers to talking about attitudinal barriers. “Disability inclusion is no longer about automatic doors, curb cuts, ramps and legislation,” says Jim Sinocchi, head of the office of disability inclusion at JP Morgan Chase. “Today, the new era of disability inclusion is about assimilation – hiring professionals with disabilities into the robust culture of the firm.”
For LaBreck, inclusion of all people is critical to the future of the workforce. “The 21st century should emphasize critical job-driven, in-demand credentials and skills to match the needs of employers looking to hire the workforce of the future by developing and sourcing qualified talent from an under-represented community.”
“Employment rates only tell part of the story,” said Philip Kahn-Pauli, policy and practices director at RespectAbility. “When you look at the employment rates among people with disabilities across racial lines, you find serious gaps in outcomes.”
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In total, 38.6 percent of Hispanics with disabilities and 41.2 percent of Asian Americans with disabilities have jobs. Among the 2,887,953 working-age Hispanics with disabilities, only 1,114,614 have jobs. Out of the 531,093 working-age Asian Americans with disabilities, only 218,999 have jobs in the community.
According to the Census Bureau, there are in total, more than 56 million Americans living with some form of disability and that includes 5.4 million African Americans with disabilities. This can include visible conditions such as spinal cord injuries, visual impairments or hearing loss to people living with invisible disabilities such as learning disabilities, mental health or autism.
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When asked about the troubling statistics and employment losses experienced by African Americans with disabilities, Dr. Walton is both determined and optimistic. “Black people with disabilities — yesterday and today – have made significant contributions throughout American history, contributing to the growth and strength of our nation in countless recorded and unrecorded ways. As we commemorate this Black History Month, let us celebrate the magic of intersection — of living black and disabled — and being inclusive of the accomplishments of countless African American contemporaries, like myself, living with disabilities and making history every day.”